We read in Parashat Behaalotekha of Benei Yisrael’s complaints after journeying from Sinai, protesting the unavailability of food. Surprisingly, the people nostalgically reminisced about their conditions in Egypt: “We remember the fish which we ate for free in Egypt” (11:5).
Rashi, citing the Sifrei, comments that the people certainly did not receive fish “for free” in Egypt. Any food the Egyptians fed Benei Yisrael was only in exchange for their slave labor. Therefore, the term “chinam” (“free”) in this verse must mean something else, and Rashi explains that it should be understood as “chinam min ha-mitzvot” – “free from the commandments.” Benei Yisrael were not saying that the Egyptians graciously fed them fish, but rather than they did not bear the kind of religious responsibilities and obligations that were imposed upon them at Mount Sinai.
This is in contrast to the view of other commentators, who accepted the straightforward reading of the verse. The Ramban, for example, explained that one of Benei Yisrael’s jobs in Egypt was fishing, and the Egyptians allowed them to eat some of the fish which they pulled from the water. Benei Yisrael now pined for this “free” fish as they grew tired of the heavenly manna which was provided for them each and every day in the wilderness.
Returning to Rashi’s Midrashic explanation of the verse, it emerges that although outwardly Benei Yisrael complained about food, this was not the true source of their discontent. What really troubled them was not their reliance on the manna, and the absence of a variety of foods, but rather the mitzvot. They felt overburdened by religious restrictions and obligations, and this pressure expressed itself in a desire for a variety of food. The Midrash thus teaches us an important psychological truth – that very often, a need that people experience is not the actual source of their discontent. Sometimes, the need is an outgrowth of some deeper, larger problem, an emotional vacuum within the person that needs to be filled. This is important for us to recognize not only with regard to ourselves, in our attempt to understand why we feel as we do and act as we do, but also in our dealings with others. Oftentimes, what people say does not accurately reflect their feelings. When they complain, feel hurt of offended, or become angry, the true source of their negative feelings may be something which they are not articulating. On some occasions, they themselves are unaware of the true source of their dissatisfaction. Chazal’s understanding into the source and nature of Benei Yisrael’s demand for food perhaps reminds us of the need to try to understand the people around us, to realize that all people go through much more than we are aware of, and that their complaints and anger should not be taken only at face value.
(See Rav Ally Ehrman’s Orot Ha-giv’a, Parashat Behaalotekha, 5777)